Chris McKay: Always wanted to blend human drama and sci-fi like Spielberg
...says filmmaker Chris McKay, ahead of the release of the sci-fi spectacle, The Tomorrow War
Chris McKay attributes the works of Steven Spielberg and James Cameron as major filmmaking influences, and you can see this in his latest film, The Tomorrow War. The Chris Pratt star vehicle is imbued with all the characteristics widely associated with Hollywood blockbusters—enormous action sequences, overwhelming visual spectacle, and an emotional family drama binding them all together.
Ahead of the film’s premiere on Amazon Prime Video on July 2, the filmmaker, best-known for The Lego Movie and The Lego Batman Movie, talks about directing The Tomorrow War and the films that moulded his taste, both as a cinephile and a filmmaker.
Excerpts from the conversation:
The Tomorrow War is your first big-budget live-action film. How different or similar was it to helm a live-action project as opposed to an animated film?
The biggest difference between directing a live-action film and an animated film is that the actors don’t talk back in an animated film. For a massive movie like this, where science fiction, action set pieces, and aliens all intertwine with one another, there are many aspects that crossover from animation to live-action—like the visual effects, pre-visualization phase, and the animatics involved. I prefer spending time on animatics to visualise and plan shots in advance, because irrespective of the budget and schedule, you are always under the gun.
Moreover, while working with actors on voice roles for animated films, I encourage them to move around the sound booth, use the space to catch the rhythm of performance, and access their imagination. Likewise, on the sets of a film like The Tomorrow War—where the actors have to react to a computer-generated alien—it’s similar in many ways. Of course, the actors are required to run with guns in dusty, smoke-filled sets, as opposed to recording their lines in a sound studio but, as a filmmaker, you use the same tools to build the environment for the actors to perform.
How challenging was it to assemble a big-budget film like this in the age of isolation?
We were fortunate to have wrapped up the filming about a month before the lockdown. We had just returned to Los Angeles from Iceland when the pandemic hit us, and, consequently, we had to reassess how we would approach post-production. Soon, we decided to send everyone home with their equipment and started working on the edit virtually. There’s a program called Evercast, which enabled us to monitor progress in real-time, watch what people were working on in the Avid suite, and talk to people to ensure a collaborative experience. It eased the editing process by loads and facilitated the back and forth of edits between the team.
There were still tasks—like the visual effects—which mandated physical presence, but we tried to stay safe by adhering to social distance norms and the mask policy. It was, indeed, challenging, but also doubled-up as a kind of bonding exercise as all of us were traversing through this difficult phase together. Each day, we had to come up with a novel way to solve a problem, and I think it made us all, a team.
The Tomorrow War blends two fascinating elements—time-travel and aliens. Any personal favourites from these genres?
Several! I’m a huge fan of horror and science fiction, with a particular inclination towards time-travel films. Among time-travel films, Happy Accidents (2000) and Primer (
Moving on to alien stuff, I love Ridley Scott’s Alien, and its sequel, Aliens, directed by James Cameron, John McTiernan’s Predator, and even Species, for that matter. Being films I grew up with, they still give me a kick (laughs). And science fiction films like Blade Runner and Star Wars were special too. I have also been a massive fan of John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg. The Thing was an equally important film in childhood. With Spielberg, be it ET: The Extra-Terrestrial or Raiders of the Lost Ark, the way he manages to interweave human drama and family stuff is something I have always wanted to do as a filmmaker. It’s one of the reasons why I’m making movies.
Have these personal favourites influenced The Tomorrow War to an extent?
Absolutely. The mood of a film like Alien, the sense of threat and tension which Ridley Scott and his team were able to create by pitting these simple humans against a monstrous adversary in space, fascinated me. My film too is about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Moreover, the visual style of those movies is enchanting. We shot The Tomorrow War with the anamorphic lens in a 2.39:1 aspect ratio as I was keen on achieving the look and feel of the films that I grew up savouring. In that sense, a fairly modern Children of Men was equally influential for the kind of feelings the film’s dystopian backdrop evoked. Likewise, the colour palette of James Cameron’s films, especially Terminator and Alie
You have promised an uncompromising DC Comic adaptation of Nightwing and are also set to direct a Jonny Quest movie. Where are these two, highly anticipated movies standing?
We just delivered the script of Jonny Quest to Warner Bros. I’m looking forward to getting the film going. I think it will be a fun film about a family, and the mixed, modern family idea adds to the complexity. Coming to Nightwing, hopefully, when Warner Bros sees The Tomorrow War, they will want to make it right away. I really hope so.